How much do you know about asthma? It seems that even if we don’t suffer from it ourselves, most of us at least know someone who does. Is asthma contagious? Does it run in families? Can asthma victims exercise and live normal lives? Is there a cure? Can I do anything to prevent getting asthma? These are all great questions. Let’s take a look at this rising disease and see if we can get a basic understanding of what it is, how it affects the health of its sufferers, and what we can do to fight against it.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic long-term lung disease that causes victims to have difficulty breathing. The airways or breathing passages of the lungs become over-sensitive to various triggers that cause them to get swollen and inflamed, thereby limiting their ability to transport air. The formation of mucous may be a problem as well, further reducing the functionality of the airways. Often the muscles controlling the breathing passages will go into spasm, causing them to constrict and allowing even less air and oxygen to pass through. Our respiratory system consists of a system of bronchial tubes that branch out like a tree, getting increasingly narrower as they get farther from the mouth and nose and closer to the lungs. This system of bronchial tubes is where the attack happens in the asthmatic person, causing them to wheeze, cough, and experience shortness of breath. With chronic, repeated attacks over time, a condition known as “airway remodeling” can occur, which is basically irreversible narrowing of the bronchial tubes.
Estimations tell us that at least 25 million Americans alone suffer from this disease, and it plays no favorites with any race or nationality. It is not contagious–you cannot “catch” asthma from someone who has it. There is no known cure, but it can be controlled and managed well for many folks. Asthma costs in the US grew from about $53 billion in 2002 to about $56 billion in 2007, about a 6% increase. With proper care, many asthmatics are able to lead healthy, active lives. However, asthma is a very serious condition, and can be deadly in some cases. Asthma had a link to 3,404 deaths in 2010.
Are There Different Types of Asthma?
Yes, there are two main types of asthma. Extrinsic or allergic asthma is by far the most common (90% of all cases). The onset is most often in childhood, usually between the ages of 2 and 6. Some 80% of all diagnosed cases of allergic asthma also are found to have, as the name indicates, a history of allergies both themselves and in their families. Commonly these victims go into remission as teenagers, but approximately 75% of them will have returning symptoms as they move into adulthood. Intrinsic or non-allergic asthma (10% of all cases) does not appear in most victims until after the age of 30. It is not usually associated with allergies and is more common among women than men.
Asthma is also classified into types by the frequency and intensity of attacks and by the results of pulmonary or lung function tests. Statistically, the breakdown is as follows:
- 30% of cases have mild, intermittent (less than 2 attacks per week) symptoms, with normal lung function tests.
- 30% have mild, persistent (more than 2 attacks per week) symptoms, with normal lung function tests.
- 40% have moderate or severe, persistent (daily or continuous) symptoms, with abnormal lung function tests.
“Conventional drugs used for treating asthma, particularly steroids, can impair immune function and lead to more serious health problems. Doctors tell you that steroids (cortisone, prednisone) only cause side effects after many years. But new research shows that permanent damage is immediate and devastating. Studies show that steroids cause permanent, debilitating effects after a single dosage. Steroids are probably the most sleazy of modern-day medications.”
Dr. John Mills, chief of infectious diseases at San Francisco General
What Causes Asthma?
The onset of extrinsic asthma, most often found in young children, seems to definitely be related to allergies. The term “extrinsic” indicates “from without,” and indeed this type of asthma is likely brought on by any number of triggers or irritants outside of the patient’s body. In an extrinsic patient, both the initial onset of the disease and the influences that trigger an episode of symptoms relate to irritants or allergens. The case with “intrinsic” (“from within”) patients is a bit different. Studies have shown that often these folks will develop the disease after a serious pulmonary viral infection, but that after that first episode, they can also be triggered by the same allergens as their extrinsic comrades. What are these “triggers?” An exhaustive list is impossible because each individual is different and each has his own particular events that can cause an attack. Below are some very common asthma triggers.
Common Asthma Triggers
- Seasonal allergens, such as pollen ( hay fever)
- Indoor air pollution (paints, cleaning chemicals, perfumes, dust mites, mold, pet dander, etc.)
- Outdoor pollution (smog, exhaust fumes, chemicals, etc.)
- Respiratory infections (colds, bronchitis, flu, etc.)
- Tobacco smoke (first-hand and second-hand smoke)
- Certain foods (peanuts, eggs, dairy, fish, among others)
- Food additives (i.e. sulfides, MSG)
- Weather (especially cold, dry)
- Certain drugs (NSAIDs–non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and Beta Blockers)
- Exercise (especially in cold, dry weather)
- Hormonal issues (i.e. PMS, menopause)
- Emotional outbursts (laughing or crying excessively, yelling or extreme anger)
Asthma and Obesity
- In 2011-2014, the current asthma prevalence was 8.8% among all adults. During this time period, asthma was more common among adults with obesity (11.1%) compared with adults in normal weight (7.1%) and overweight (7.8%) categories.
- Women with obesity were more likely to have asthma than those in lower weight categories. Overall, women with obesity had higher current asthma prevalence (14.6%) compared with women in the normal weight (7.9%) and overweight (9.1%) categories.
- Among adults aged 60 and over, there was a significant trend of increasing asthma prevalence with weight status: 7.0% among normal-weight adults; 9.1% among overweight adults; 11.6% among adults with obesity.
- Among weight status subgroups, current asthma prevalence increased from 5.6% in 2001-2012 to 8.4% in 2013-2014 among adults in the overweight category.
Are There any Natural Remedies for Asthma?
There is much that can be done to prevent and treat asthma symptoms. Traditional prescription drugs have their place. Asthma can be a very dangerous condition, and these drugs can be effective to avoid a crises in some patients. However, many people have concern about side effects from some of these drugs (many of them contain steroids) and look for safer more natural options. The good news is that there are many natural alternatives that have proven effective in fighting asthma. A recent cross-cultural study indicated that 81% of parents of children with asthma have sought alternative therapies to help their children.
Common sense (“which ain’t so common,” as my Dad used to remind me) tells us that one of the most important things we can do to avoid or manage asthma is to eliminate or minimize the factors that may trigger an attack. (As much as possible, stay away from anything that might set off an episode.)
Natural Remedies for Asthma
Fresh, Clean Air
Try to get outside and breathe some fresh, clean air at least 20 minutes a day. Even most cities have a park or “green area” available. Be careful at certain times of the year if you are prone to seasonal allergies or if the weather is too cold.
It is a myth that asthmatics cannot exercise. Just be moderate and don’t overdo it. Swimming has been found by some as an excellent treatment for asthma. Just be very careful of excess chlorine in the pool. Ozonated pools are a better choice.
Avoid Cigarette Smoke
Avoid second-hand smoke, and if you are still smoking, make it a priority to stop! It’s the number one step you can take to help your asthma and improve your health in general.
Caution: NSAIDS & Beta Blockers
Talk with your doctor about alternatives if you are taking any NSAIDs or Beta Blocker drugs. These drugs are known to trigger asthma.
Research indicates that women with hormone imbalance issues such as PMS and menopause are twice as likely to develop asthma. Seek out natural remedies to help balance hormone issues. Saliva test your sex hormones. If needed, a bioidentical USP progesterone cream is a great place to start.
Be careful and judicious around any chemicals that you cannot avoid exposure to, perhaps in the workplace (i.e. paint, chemical fumes, etc.) and around the home (cleaning supplies, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.). Always wear high-quality protective gear.
Remember to laugh a lot and treat yourself well. We often take (life and ourselves) so seriously that we forget we need to loosen up and not be so serious all the time. This can help to reduce the stress in our lives and avoid emotional extremities that can sometimes trigger asthma.
Stabilizing the allergic and inflammatory pathways in the body is crucial. Omega 3 oils, found in fish and flax seeds, can be a powerful way to accomplish this. One particular study found that children who eat fish more than once per week have one third the risk of developing asthma as those who don’t eat fish on a regular basis. Avoidance of tartrazine dyes (found in many artificial colorings), preservatives, aspirin, ibuprofen, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is also vital as these substances promote the production of leukotrienes — strong inflammatory substances involved in asthma. Identifying and removing food allergens is also a very effective way to lower inflammation in the body.
As a pet lover myself, it’s hard to say this but, if pet dander is a trigger for you, you may need to consider removing them from your home. However, if that is too radical and you can’t part with Fluffy or Fido, then the next best thing would be to manage that environment as best as you can. Perhaps a high-quality air filter/purifier can be added to the central heating/A.C. system.
Focus on making your bedroom as dander and allergen-free as possible. Keep your pets out, use hypoallergenic bedding, and change bedding weekly, washing it with fragrance-free detergent and no toxic dryer sheets. Sometimes limiting carpeting and upholstered furniture in your home will help, too. Even if the pets are gone, dust mites and bed bugs are not your friends either.
Diet and nutrition are huge factors in asthma management. The first step is to eliminate any foods you in which you are allergic. Anything that causes an allergic reaction will only aggravate asthma. Avoid all foods and medicines that contain artificial ingredients such as colorings or flavorings. Often an asthma victim may have to eliminate suspected allergens through a process of elimination. Drop them one at a time from your diet and keep a log of what you are changing and how you feel. Eliminating some items may show immediate improvement, while with others it will take some time to notice any changes.
Many health practitioners are recommending complete plant-based diets to asthmatics. One long-term study showed that 92% of patients who eliminated all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs showed great improvement. Perhaps increasing the amounts of organic fruits and vegetables was responsible for these results. Reducing sodium is also important, with evidence pointing towards reduced asthmatic symptoms and even the lessening of mortality rates with a low-sodium diet.
Load up on antioxidants in your diet. Vitamin C (known to help keep the bronchial tubes healthy and flowing freely), Vitamin E (full spectrum), and lycopene (a carotenoid) have been found helpful. Antioxidants fight free radicals which can negatively affect your bronchioles as well. Eat lots of organic fresh fruits (berries, kiwi) and green vegetables from the cabbage family.
Magnesium deficiency is a factor in some asthma cases. Magnesium deficiency can increase the risk of developing asthma. Laboratory studies indicate that magnesium can induce bronchial smooth muscle relaxation and allow air to get into and out of the lungs more easily. (Gourgoulianis 2001). Make sure you are getting enough magnesium and calcium. They act like a pigeon pair and work best when taken together. Green tea and the herbal medicine lobelia are also effective bronchodilators.
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in regulating a broad range of immune processes and anti-inflammatory reactions involved in asthma. A study published in the Cochran Database of Systematic Reviews tested 435 children and 658 adults with mild to moderate asthma and concluded that those taking vitamin D supplements experienced fewer severe asthma attacks, required less use of oral steroids for treatment and reduced their risk of hospitalization for acute asthma attacks. It’s important to get your Vitamin D3 levels checked. Getting daily sun is always best, but when that is not possible an organic liquid Vitamin D3 supplement is a good idea.
Since 1973, there have been 11 clinical studies that have studied the use of vitamin C in asthma treatment, seven of which showed significant improvement. There is evidence that a daily vitamin C supplement may reduce the risk of viral respiratory infections in people at high risk of asthma attacks.
For some people with chronic or severe asthma, studies show they may suffer from a selenium deficiency (Qujeq 2003; Allam 2004; Rubin 2004). Several studies have looked at the use of selenium supplementation in asthma. The results of one study showed a decrease in corticosteroid use when patients supplemented with 200 mcg daily (Gazdik 2002), while the results of another study found significant clinical improvement with 100 mcg daily (Allam 2004). A study of 26 selenium deficient, asthmatic patients in 2007 showed improvements in asthma-related quality of life and lung function measurements when selenium deficiency was corrected with 200 mcg of selenium daily for 16 weeks (Voicekovska 2007). Another randomized controlled study revealed improvements in quality of life with no change in objective lung function measures (Shaheen 2007). I highly recommend using an organic, plant-based selenium supplement extracted from mustard seed and containing other natural co-nutrients from the plant.
The absolutely best thing you can do to help fight the effects of asthma in your life is to continually educate yourself about safe, effective treatments that are working and showing results for others. Never stop learning and never stop applying what you’ve learned. You are responsible for your own health. I for one do not want to ever take someone’s word for anything without looking into it myself. Learn to think and act proactively when it comes to your health and the health of your loved ones. This is especially important today, as it seems that every day new information is coming out about just how toxic and dangerous our modern lives can be. The rate of asthma in America is skyrocketing, especially for children. Our immune systems are increasingly taking a hit due to the worsening of the environment around us. Asthma management is an excellent example of how applying healthy alternatives can help us specifically with this illness, and generally with our overall health. Studies have shown that infants with a strong family history of asthma can avoid the onset of asthma with the elimination of common allergens. This again reinforces the fact that lifestyle prevention is the best course for all of our health needs.
References and Research
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital Signs, May 2011.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 61, No. 4, May 8, 2013
Citation: Akinbami LJ, Fryar CD. Asthma prevalence by weight status among adults: United States, 2001-2014. NCHS data brief, no 239. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.
Searing DA, Zhang Y, et al. Decreased serum vitamin D levels in children with asthma are associated with increased corticosteroid use. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2010;125:995–1000.
Devereux G, Litonjua AA, et al. Maternal vitamin D intake during pregnancy and early childhood wheezing. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;85(3):853-9.
Devereux G, Turner SW, et al. Low maternal vitamin E intake during pregnancy is associated with asthma in 5-year-old children. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2006;174:499-507.
Gontijo-Amaral C, Ribeiro M, et al. Oral magnesium supplementation in asthmatic children: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jan;61(1):54-60.
Gourgoulianis KI, Chatziparasidis G, Chatziefthimiou A, et al. Magnesium as a relaxing factor of airway smooth muscles. J Aerosol Med. 2001 Fall;14(3):301-7.
Hazlewood L, Wood L, et al. Dietary lycopene supplementation suppresses Th2 responses and lung eosinophilia in a mouse model of allergic asthma. J Nutr Biochem. 2011 Jan;22(1):95-100. Epub 2010 Apr 13.
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Nurmatov U, Devereux G, et al. Nutrients and foods for the primary prevention of asthma and allergy: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Mar;127(3):724-33.e1-30.
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Martineau AR,Cates CJ, Urashima M, Jensen M, Griffiths AP, Nurmatov U, Sheikh A, Griffiths CJ. Vitamin D for the management of asthma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD011511. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD011511.pub2.
Hemilä H. Vitamin C and asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014 Nov;134(5):1216. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2014.08.032.